United Methodist Church Reverses Ban on Practicing Gay Clergy

— In a meeting on Wednesday, church leaders also voted to allow L.G.B.T.Q. weddings.

Andy Oliver, a pastor in St. Petersburg, Fla., reacted to the vote by United Methodist Church delegates to repeal its ban on gay clergy.

By Ruth Graham

The United Methodist Church removed on Wednesday its longstanding ban on ordaining gay clergy, formalizing a shift in policy that had already begun in practice and that had prompted the departure of a quarter of its U.S. congregations in recent years.

The overturning of the 40-year-old ban on “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” passed overwhelmingly and without debate in a package of measures that had already received strong support at the committee level.

Delegates, meeting in Charlotte, N.C., also voted to bar local leaders from penalizing clergy or churches for holding, or declining to hold, same-sex weddings. The vote effectively allows same-sex marriage in the church for the first time, although the original penalty was already unevenly enforced. Some clergy may still decline to perform same-sex weddings.

Further votes affirming L.G.B.T.Q. inclusion in the church are expected before the meeting adjourns on Friday.

“We’ve always been a big-tent church where all of God’s beloved were fully welcome,” said Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, the new president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops and the first Black woman to serve in that role. She called the vote “a celebration of God breaking down walls.”

She described the atmosphere in the room as a “Pentecost moment,” in which the presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable.

Last week, the conference approved the first phrase of a “regionalization” plan that would restructure the global denomination to give different regions autonomy on adapting rules on issues including sexuality. The move is seen as a way to defuse tensions between the increasingly progressive American church and more conservative factions internationally.

Though the end of the ban on gay clergy applies to the global church, regionalization means that in practice it may primarily affect churches in the United States.

The United Methodist Church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the nation; the Southern Baptist Convention is the biggest. There were 5.4 million Methodists in the United States in 2022, a steep decline from just a few years earlier, and a number that is expected to drop again once last year’s accelerated departures are counted.

Delegates also voted this week to end a ban on using United Methodist funds to “promote acceptance of homosexuality,” a change particularly welcomed by those in ministries working with L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“The energy that’s gone into preparing for and trying to get to this moment can now be refocused,” said Jan Lawrence, the executive director of Reconciling Ministries Network, a group that advocates for full inclusion in the church. “We have a huge opportunity in front of us.” Ms. Lawrence noted that not only were all the group’s goals for the meetings likely to be achieved, but they were doing so in at atmosphere that was notably agreeable, even joyful.

Wednesday’s vote follows years of turmoil in the denomination over sexuality, an issue that has prompted tumultuous debates and schisms in other Christian traditions and institutions.

Conservatives in the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, have formed breakaway denominations in reaction to the acceptance of gay clergy. Catholic Church doctrine forbids same-sex relationships, but Pope Francis has alarmed some traditionalists by allowing priests to bless same-sex couples.

At their most recent meeting in 2019, Methodists voted to tighten an existing ban on same-sex marriages and gay and lesbian clergy.=

Since that contentious vote, however, the denomination’s makeup has changed, in large part because of conservative congregations departing in anticipation of the loosening of strictures around homosexuality that are becoming official this week.

Conservatives were given an exit ramp when Methodist leaders opened a window in 2019 for congregations to leave over “reasons of conscience,” in most cases allowing them to keep their property and assets if they received approval to depart by the end of last year. Many conservative congregations accepted the offer, prompting an extraordinary decline for the geographically and culturally diverse denomination.

In Texas, for example, a historic stronghold, more than 40 percent of United Methodist congregations left the denomination. Some joined the breakaway conservative Global Methodist Church, while others have remained independent.

Many conservatives had been disturbed by what they saw as the church’s failure to enforce its bans on gay clergy and same-sex weddings. Some leaders in more progressive regions had begun defying the restrictions, and the church now has a number of openly gay clergy and two gay bishops.

“This is certainly the lightning rod issue, the presenting issue, but our division goes so much deeper,” said Rob Renfroe, the president of Good News, a traditionalist caucus within the United Methodist Church. He described sexuality as a proxy issue for larger debates in the church about the authority of the Bible, the reality of sin and beliefs about salvation.

Mr. Renfroe is attending the meeting in Charlotte but says that given the outcome, he will leave the denomination within the next month. He cautioned that many denominations that have moved in the direction that Methodists have taken this week have seen their numbers dramatically decline.

“As the church becomes more and more liberal, and if a social agenda becomes its driving force, that’s not going to grow the church,” he said.

For others, the vote was a moment of deep optimism. Chet Jechura, the pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Baltimore, wept as he watched the vote at home via livestream. Almost exactly five years ago, when the denomination tightened enforcement of its ban against gay clergy, he had broken into sobs while he was serving communion. Now he will be ordained in just a few weeks.

“Today I am weeping tears of joy — and profound existential relief,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be ordained into this renewal movement at such an historic moment.”

On the floor of the meeting after the vote on Wednesday morning, the mood was equally jubilant.

Some delegates and observers gathered in a circle to sing a Methodist song that has become a refrain for many L.G.T.B.Q. Christians. “Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still,” they sang. “Let this be our song: No one stands alone.”

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State Police warrant

— Former New Orleans archbishops knew about clergy sex abuse

Louisiana State Police serve the Archdiocese of New Orleans with a search warrant Wednesday morning, April 25, 2024.


For the first time, Louisiana law enforcement officials are digging deeply into allegations that former New Orleans archbishops, the highest-ranking officials in the state’s Catholic hierarchy, knew about child sex abuse by priests and deacons and tried to cover it up.

The claims are contained in an extraordinary 11-page affidavit supporting a search warrant that was served by State Police on the Archdiocese of New Orleans last week. In it, investigators say that, while looking into clergy sex abuse in a joint probe with the FBI, they uncovered documents that “back the claim that previous Archbishops, not only knew of the sexual abuse and failed to report all the claims to law enforcement but spent Archdiocese funding to support the accused.”

The affidavit, released Tuesday, details allegations of sex abuse dating back decades. Among the claims: That clergy transported victims across state lines to abuse them; hosted nude pool parties for potential victims at the Notre Dame Seminary; and created a system whereby potential victims would unwittingly transport “gifts” from one priest to another, signaling they had been marked for sexual abuse.

The affidavit says that State Police sought the warrant because they believe there is probable cause the archdiocese was engaging in “trafficking of children for sexual purposes.” It adds that sealed church records identify one former archbishop who “was aware of rampant sexual abuse throughout the Archdiocese.” That archbishop is not named.

Though survivors of clergy sex abuse have long accused church officials in civil lawsuits of improperly handling and covering up abuse allegations, the document backing up the search warrant is the first time a law enforcement agency has made such claims as part of a criminal probe.

It is unclear how far that investigation will go, or whether the FBI is still involved. A State Police spokesman said his agency is currently acting alone. The FBI declined to comment.

In a prepared statement Tuesday, the church said: “The Archdiocese has been openly discussing the topic of sex abuse for over 20 years. In keeping with this, we also are committed to working with law enforcement in these endeavors.”

State Police said the archdiocese has agreed to cooperate, though it has not turned over any records yet.

New Orleans author Jason Berry, who has written about clergy sex abuse for nearly three decades, said he believes the investigation is a serious development in the ongoing crisis.

“My sense is that law enforcement is looking at this as a systemic cover-up and wants to get to the bottom of it,” Berry said.

Roots in Hecker case

The search warrant stems from an investigation into disgraced former priest Lawrence Hecker, 92, who was arrested last fall on charges of kidnapping and rape and is currently awaiting trial. Investigators say that in the course of the Hecker investigation, they were made aware of additional allegations that led to them to seek the search warrant.

The warrant seeks decades’ worth of documents, communications and information related to priest assignments. Specifically, it asks for files that identify every priest and deacon accused of abusing children while working in the archdiocese, not just those whom the church has deemed credibly accused.

In 2018, Archbishop Gregory Aymond released a list of 50 former clergy members that the church had determined were credibly accused. The list, which has since grown to include dozens more names, resulted in a surge of new claims, which prompted the archdiocese to file for federal bankruptcy protection on May 1, 2020.

The warrant also seeks correspondence between Aymond, his staff and the Vatican. It references the Hecker case, and details how the former priest was sent by the church to a psychiatric facility in Pennsylvania after an alleged rape of a child in 1975. There, he was diagnosed as a pedophile, but “was released and reassigned to another parish after his evaluation with the blessing of the Archbishop, who was aware of his medical diagnosis.”

The archbishop at the time of the alleged rape was the late Archbishop Philip Hannan, who served from 1965 to 1988.

The warrant adds that “Hecker was not the only member the archdiocese sent to receive psychiatric testing based on allegations of child sex abuse.”

Some of the most disturbing allegations in the warrant refer to “’gifts’ given to abuse victims by the accused with instructions to pass on or give the ‘gift’ to a certain priest at the next school or church. It was said that the ‘gift’ was a form of signaling to another priest that the person was a target for sexual abuse,” the warrant says.

Another example of “illegal activity” outlined in the warrant documents: pool parties at which victims were allegedly told to “skinny dip” in the pool at the seminary, where they were often sexually assaulted or abused. The warrant says such gatherings were “a common occurrence,” adding that, “many sexual abuse cases occurred on archdiocese property.”

Though the allegations contained in the search warrant do not contain specific dates, most of the abuse cases date back to the 1970s and 1980s, if not earlier. After Hannan retired in 1988, Francis Schulte served as archbishop until 2002. Retired Archbishop Alfred Hughes served from 2002 to 2009 and still lives at the Notre Dame Seminary.

Schulte is deceased. Hughes did not respond to a request seeking comment.

‘Two arms in conflict’

The blockbuster development in the clergy sex scandal comes on the fourth anniversary of the bankruptcy case. At the time, some 30 claims and a dozen or so lawsuits had been filed against the church. Since then, some 550 claims stretching back decades have been filed against priests, deacons and other clergy by 330 abuse survivors.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Meredith Grabill immediately froze all state court lawsuits and sealed documents related to church abuse after the bankruptcy was filed. Legal experts say it is unlikely that the protective order would cover a search warrant in a criminal investigation.

“It is quite striking when a bankruptcy judge puts a tight lid on potentially incriminating documents and the State Police turns around with subpoena power and says ‘We want those documents,'” Berry said. “We’re seeing two arms of the legal system in conflict.”

Complete Article HERE!

Why faith-based groups are prone to sexual abuse and how they can get ahead of it

— As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, there are a few steps experts say every faith group can take to improve safeguarding protocols.

A woman holds signs about abuse during a rally outside the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala.


Hollywood, the USA Gymnastics team, Penn State, the Boy Scouts: Sexual abuse has proved pervasive across institutions. And when it comes to faith groups, no creed, structure, value system or size has seemed immune.

“We’ve got to stop saying that could never happen in my church, or my pastor would never do that,” said David Pooler, a professor of social work at Baylor University who researches clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse of adults.

With more victims coming forward and more research done on abuse within religious contexts, the evidence has shown that when sexual abuse happens in a place designated not only safe, but holy, it’s a unique form of betrayal — and when the perpetrator is a clergy member or spiritual leader, the abuse can be seen as God-endorsed.

As the scope of this crisis has been revealed, houses of worship and religious institutions — from Southern Baptists to Orthodox Jews to American atheists — have looked to shore up their safeguarding protocols and protect their constituents against abuse.

But rather than scrambling to respond in the wake of a crisis, faith groups need to adopt policies tailored to their setting and connected to their mission, says Kathleen McChesney, who was the first executive director of the Office of Child Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kathleen McChesney. Photo courtesy of McChesney
Kathleen McChesney.

“When you do that, people will have a greater understanding of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it,” said McChesney, one of a growing group of abuse experts and survivor advocates consulting with religious institutions.

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, there are a few steps these experts say every faith group can take to improve safeguarding protocols.

Accept it can happen anywhere

One of the most dangerous — and common — assumptions religious groups make is to think of sexual abuse as a “them” problem. As the founder of international nonprofit Freely in Hope, Nikole Lim has worked for years to combat sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia, and more recently has been helping U.S.-based groups prevent sexual abuse locally. For Lim, the reality that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men worldwide are survivors of sexual abuse is evidence this is a problem that permeates every level of society. “That’s a global statistic that doesn’t only exist in poor communities,” said Lim. “That also exists within your family, within your congregations.”

Nikole Lim. (Courtesy photo)
Nikole Lim.

Experts agree that faith groups often embrace the myth that good intentions, theology and ethics can stop sexual abuse from landing on their doorstep. Amy Langenberg, a professor of religious studies at Eckerd College, along with her research partner Ann Gleig, a religious and cultural studies scholar at the University of Central Florida, have shown that Buddhist ethics about doing no harm and showing compassion are insufficient to prevent abuse in Buddhist contexts.

“You really do need these other ways of thinking about ethics, which are coming from outside of Buddhism, and which are coming usually from feminism, from advocacy, from the law,” said Langenberg.

Because faith communities often think of themselves as the “good guys,” they’re vulnerable to blind spots. That’s why conducting a risk assessment, much like you’d do for fire insurance, can help pinpoint what protocols are most needed, according to McChesney, who now leads a firm that consults on employee misconduct investigations and policy development. Once concrete anti-abuse measures are in place, ongoing education can remind people at all levels of the organization to remain vigilant.

Define abuse

Faith groups often struggle to respond effectively to sexual misconduct because they lack consensus on what “counts” as abusive. Gleig, who is teaming up with Langenberg on a book-length study called Abuse, Sex, and the Sangha,” told Religion News Service that in Buddhist contexts, the category of abuse is often contested. In some cases, Gleig said, “abuse can be framed as a Buddhist teaching — for example, that this wasn’t abuse, it was actually some kind of skillful form of pedagogy.”

Amy Langenberg, left, and Ann Gleig. (Photos courtesy Rice University)
Amy Langenberg, left, and Ann Gleig.

In churches, Lim has found that loose definitions of abuse can lead to a form of “spiritual bypassing,” where abuse is framed as a mistake to be prayed about, rather than an act of harm that requires tangible accountability.

Conversations about sexual abuse in religious settings are often framed around clergy abuse of children. But faith groups must also account for peer-on-peer violence among children and teens, as well as abuse of adults. Key to preventing such abuse, Pooler said, is having a robust definition of sexual abuse that goes beyond mere legal metrics and includes things such as sexual conversations, nonconsensual touch and sexual jokes and language.

Recognize power dynamics

The unequal power dynamics inherent to religious settings are an enormous barrier to equitably addressing sexual abuse. But the law is beginning to account for this imbalance. In at least 13 states and the District of Columbia, it’s illegal for clergy to engage in sexual behavior with someone in their spiritual care — and many experts believe this standard, which is widely embraced when it comes to doctors and therapists, should be universal in religious settings, too.

According to Pooler, religious groups should work to share power among multiple leaders and ensure that the broader community has decision-making authority. And when sexual abuse allegations involve a religious leader, “the person should be placed on some type of leave where they are no longer influencing or speaking,” said Pooler, “because what I have seen is abusive people will try and grab ahold of the microphone and shape a narrative immediately.”

Rowena Chiu, from left, Jean Nangwala, Irene Cho, and facilitator Bigad Shaban participate in a panel during the Freely In Hope event titled "Redeeming Sanctuaries: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Church" in San Francisco in June 2023. (Photo courtesy Freely in Hope)
Rowena Chiu, from left, Jean Nangwala, Irene Cho, and facilitator Bigad Shaban participate in a panel during the Freely In Hope event titled “Redeeming Sanctuaries: Ending Sexual Abuse in the Church” in San Francisco in June 2023.

Center survivors

Experts commonly observe a default reaction in religious settings to to protect the reputation of the faith group or clergyperson over investigating an abuse allegation. But defensive postures often overlook the person who, at great risk, reported the abuse in the first place.

Navila Rashid. Photo courtesy Rashid
Navila Rashid.

When a survivor shares abuse allegations, faith groups often fear what will happen if they take the report seriously. For example, Navila Rashid, director of training and survivor advocacy for Heart, a group that equips Muslims to nurture sexual health and confront sexual violence, said Muslim communities can be hesitant to address sexual violence because they don’t want to add to existing Islamophobic narratives about the violence of Islam. But Rashid told RNS it’s vital to believe survivors. “If we can’t start off from that premise, then doing and creating preventative tools and methods is not going to actually work,” she said.

Pooler advises groups to make sure survivors “sit at the steering wheel” of how the response is handled — if and when personal details about the survivor are shared, for example, should be entirely up to them. Caring for abuse survivors requires taking their needs seriously at every juncture, even before abuse is reported, according to Pooler and other experts. That’s why background checks are vital.

“You don’t want to put somebody that has abused a minor ever in a role of supervising minors,” McChesney told RNS.

Get outside help

Faith communities are known for being close-knit, which makes avoiding conflicts of interest difficult, if not impossible, when it comes to holding offenders accountable. That’s why many experts recommend hiring outside groups to hold trainings, develop protocols and steer abuse investigations.

“They don’t have any investment in the church looking good or their leaders looking good,” Pooler said about hiring groups such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) or other third-party organizations that investigate abuse allegations. These organizations, he said, are committed to laying out the facts so faith groups can make informed decisions. Groups that are trauma-informed can also ensure that gathering testimony from survivors doesn’t cause additional harm.

David Pooler. (Courtesy photo)
David Pooler.

Rashid recommended that faith communities create a budget line for hiring outside groups who focus on addressing sexual abuse. Rather than offering quick fixes, she said, such groups are designed to help faith communities unlearn biases, recognize power dynamics and adopt long-term solutions at individual, communal and institutional levels that prioritize the safety of all community members.

“What we want to see with policies is pushing for a culture shift,” she said, “not a Band-Aid fix.”

Complete Article HERE!